Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Best Starter Pets

Gerbil 1 and Gerbil 2.. Can you guess which one was sick?*
WHAT: Gerbils (not a toy)
DOES: Watch and raise cute little animals that eat, sleep, and play in a tank and can come out to play with you too.
INVEST:   2 gerbil pups+ starter 10 gallon tank + screen + bedding+ food+water bottle = almost $100 dollars
TOOLS: Fertilize Responsibility and Courtesty, Excuses for Learning Disliked Subjects, Think Like a Scientist/Engineer, Work Experience

Several months ago we brought home two gerbils.  They are great because they are small. They don't smell too bad either (just don't stick your face in the tank). They are active and always need to be with other gerbils (at least one other).  I am told they make great "starter pets" and I agree.   While we couldn't have a dog (building rules) or cat (I'm allergic) in our home, I do love animals and thought the gerbils would help my children in a variety of ways.

For one, the gerbils can have a nice calming effect on Number 1.  They are also amusing because by nature they are pretty active.  If you give them an empty toilet-paper roll, they shred them in minutes.
(Click link to watch short clip) How can you not watch that?  It's kind of funny. They help keep us in happy moods.  We like watching them sleep too.  I also like that you need to buy more than one.  Watching them play fight and eat together is fun.

Another thing I like about having gerbils is that he practices thinking about others' needs as he learns to care for them.  He also observes them and learns from their behavior and is encouraged to accommodate their needs when he can.  He has to do a variety of things for them almost everyday including:
  • changing their water bottle and putting vitamins in it
  • checking to see if they have enough food, easily done by lifting the lid of their tank topper
  • putting them in their exercise balls, especially the one who doesn't run in the wheel (a great example that not all gerbils act the same way- humans too, maybe?)
  • building structures for them out of grooved popsicle sticks or untreated wooden blocks
The basic care tasks are sometimes written in a checklist and posted on the wall, much like the ones you see in public bathrooms.  Some of these he does without supervision and some of it he does including cleaning the tank every 2-3 weeks.  It is really not that hard to do.  We have figured out a way for him to do almost all of it without having to lift the 10-gallon glass tank himself.  (Basically place the tank on the floor and give Number 1 a bowl of soapy water and a paper towel, he does the rest, it takes minutes) 

He also learns that he must protect them.  He understands that if they escaped that they could get hurt even though the idea of them running around a bit is a lot of fun.  I like this because I can make direct comparisons to his need for more independence and adventure whether he is outside or online.  In fact, I often use the gerbils to explain some of my parenting decisions to him because he knows that he is sort of their "Dad."

There are other lessons that have been unexpected and yet very valuable and even inspiring.  After the first week of having them, one of the gerbils got very sick.  Note to self: if there is a next time, we will go to a breeder!  We had to separate the two gerbils but we also had to watch how one thrived while the other was about to meet his death.  I still made Number 1 take care of the both gerbils until I no longer thought it was safe for him to care for the sick one.  In fact the sick one actually bit Number 1 (I shouldn't have let this happen. This was my mistake.)

But then a miracle came along.  The sick gerbil got better.  He just wouldn't die!  In fact, at one point, I was hoping he would because it was so odd how long he was holding out and I didn't love the idea of having a sick gerbil in my home for that long.  Most gerbils, when they have symptoms like our gerbil did (diarrhea, ruffled fur, heavy breathing, inactive), would certainly die within a week.  But our gerbil  held on and made a full recovery.  Together, we figured out the best way to reunite the gerbils and it has been many months now and both are faring very well.   Number 1 Son learned a lot through this.

He also learned about trauma because both he and the sick gerbil had trauma from this experience.  The sick gerbil had a very tough time being held and Number 1 was scared of the sick one even after he got better because he had bit him.   They are still a little afraid of each other but things are a lot better now.  We all admire our gerbil's resilience.  

Additionally, caring for them brings academic learning opportunities because there is more to read in order to take care of them.  He has had to read pamphlets, websites, and books to learn how to take care of them.  He has had to write his own sentences on what they need to in order to thrive.  I can also ask him to write the rules of care on the wall for all to see.  For now, we go by the rules I've written  and he has memorized them and recites them when friends show an interest in playing with them.

Another unexpected learning opportunity came in the form of building.  Number 1 loves to build but Number 2 does not but all of us can work on getting cardboard and folding it or gluing it to make a little house for them to chew.  They like untreated wood too.  You can build them a house and watch them sleep under it or chew it to pieces. 

Despite all the cuteness of the gerbils, Number 1 definitely slacks off.  To be sure, he is reminded of the consequences. That is, he won't get to keep them if he ignores them (although I don't know how how I'd get rid of them other than giving it away to a friend).  He also knows that just losing them will not be the end of it.  He will have to pay back society for adopting a gerbil and not living up to his commitment.  I am not talking jail.  I am talking about paying back to the American Gerbil Society.  He would need to make a contribution after a lot of hard work.  It is a bit odd but as parents, we just can't let children think there is a choice in the matter because once we take them home, the deal is sealed.   Disappointing your adopted animal this way is not an option.  If he doesn't care for it (after having begged me for months) then I will have to and I don't want that so I have to figure out creative ways for him to fulfill their promise.

I would also warn that we need to step in as parents sometimes and just care for the gerbil in those first few weeks to allow for less biting accidents and more calm interactions between the baby gerbil and your child as we teach them how to care for them.   I think the friendlier the gerbil is, the more likely they can be a positive experience for the child.  I suppose it is hard to know this when they are babies up for sale or adoption but looking back, I wish I had definitely put more effort into relationship-building.  I have also read that gerbils sold by breeders are more tame (and healthier).  

Nothing is perfect and you may disagree with some of my methods but I do like the end results of what has happened since we adopted them. I happily admit that I no longer talk about the American Gerbil Society.  Our gerbils are a permanent part of this family.  I feel like they have helped my son mature a bit more and even if their presence hasn't done that, they bring a little more calm and peace to our home.  We love looking at them as they are asleep, curled up into a ball shape, brother on top of brother.  It's a living breathing painting of peace and there will always be room for peace in my house.

Final tips:
  1. If you want your child to care for them, then put the gerbils within easy reach.  If you put them on top of a table and have a tank topper, your child may not be tall enough to balance himself while trying to get the gerbil or do any necessary work.  Then you cannot yell at your child for not taking care of them.  Our gerbils are on the floor.  You don't see small animals living on the floor but how else would a 7 year old have easy access to them? 
  2. Start small.  Gerbils are around 8 dollars in a pet store and possibly more through a breeder or even free.  Starting out with two is best and make sure they are same sex!!!  I have already met two owners who were not given proper sex identification and you can guess what happened next.  The more you want your child involved in the process, the easier you want it to be so starting out small is best.  If you get a big tank or lots of gerbils, you will have to help and you want your child to have as many responsibilities as possible.  However, if you really want a big tank then maybe you can divvy the chores, labeling your chores as the grown-up must-dos and your child's chores as an owner's responsibility chores.  Remember gerbils supposedly do better in glass aquarium tanks hence we have the smallest one and we give them the extra space with the tank topper.  I do not put anything plastic in there anymore.  It will all get shredded and even if they were BPA-free, who wants shredded plastic everywhere? Not me.

* Answer: Gerbil 1 (white and yellow fur was the sick one.  But he is also the one who runs around in the wheel where as Gerbil 2 never does.  Gerbil 2 is chubbier than Gerbil 1.  Exercise is king, even for gerbils.)

Disclosure statement: Toys are Tools has not been compensated in any fashion by any parties  for the publication of this post . 

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